Matthew Raiford’s new cookbook ‘Bress ’n’ Nyam’ intersperses family history with the Gullah Geechee recipes he grew up with
Matthew Raiford, a chef and farmer, always wanted to write a cookbook, specifically a cookbook about the South. The opportunity presented itself after he gave a TEDx talk in 2018. As Raiford sat offstage following the talk, titled “Legacy in the Soil,” writer Amy Condon approached him. “Amy walks out and goes, ‘Okay, you need to write a book,’” Raiford says. “And I just looked up at her and I was like, ‘Yeah, if you help me write it.’”
The book Raiford wrote with Condon is called Bress ’n’ Nyam, a Gullah phrase meaning “bless and eat.” And like that TEDx talk, it dives deep into Raiford’s own family legacy to give readers a sense of a place: his corner of the Georgia coast and more precisely, Gilliard Farms, the land that’s been in his family for six generations, since 1874.
Ultimately, with Bress ’n’ Nyam, Raiford hopes to “show what that scenery looks like and show what this area of the world looks like, because I’m not Charleston, I’m not Atlanta, I’m not Savannah, I’m not Florida. I’m kind of caught in that middle,” he says. “I wanted to write something that was indicative of this area and how I grew up.”
The particulars of life on Gilliard Farms appear in photographs, but also in recipes, as with the recipe for Effie’s Shrimp Creole. Effie is Raiford’s mother. Effie is also the name of his mother’s mother and her grandmother before her, and the recipe’s history reaches back nearly as far. “It’s about three generations old, if not four,” Raiford says. But it didn’t get the name it goes by in the book until Raiford’s mother discussed her coastal paella with a friend from Louisiana and they noted its similarities to the Louisiana dish. It became a signature. “This was one of the dishes my mom would take to parties … everyone would devour this,” Raiford says. “You know when people go to church and a very specific person makes a pie and everyone wants to buy the slices of that pie? My mom’s shrimp Creole is like that.”
Raiford and his family would go out shrimping for the dish, and it’s this sense of connection between food and place that Raiford hopes readers take away from Bress ’n’ Nyam. “I want them to think about where they are and what food or foodways or food systems are in place in their area that they don’t know about,” he says. “Everybody has a food story and it just takes a moment sometimes to dial it all in and the more they dial in the more they’re going to find that’s going to be delicious.”
Effie’s Shrimp Creole
When folks think of coastal Georgia food, they think of shrimp and grits. That dish is definitely indicative of the Saltwater Gullah and Geechee who lived on the Sea Islands. They most often made the dish with a rich brown gravy or roux, much more akin to a gumbo. Freshwater — or mainland — Geechee, like my family, made something closer to a jambalaya, no okra but richly flavored with tomatoes and red pepper. The rice, of course, stretches it. For me, my mom’s shrimp creole, a recipe handed down through the family, is a comfort food.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and finely diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and finely diced
1 orange bell pepper, seeded and finely diced
1 16-ounce can tomato puree
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
2 cups uncooked long-grain rice or Carolina Gold Rice
1 quart warm shrimp stock, prepared or homemade (recipe follows)
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined, shells reserved for stock
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Step 1: In a large cast-iron skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the onions and garlic, and saute until golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Step 2: Add the peppers, tomato puree, red pepper flakes, and rice, stirring until well combined. Pour the stock in slowly to prevent splattering, as the pan will be hot, then bring the creole to a boil. Once boiling, stir, cover, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.
Step 3: Remove the cover, add the shrimp, and give the rice a good stir. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes more, until all the liquid is absorbed and the shrimp have pinked and curled. Taste and add salt and pepper to your liking. Serve and enjoy.
Makes 2 quarts
2 quarts (8 cups) cold water
4 cups shrimp shells
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 Vidalia onion, peeled and quartered
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 celery rib, cut into 2-inch pieces, including leaves
1 lemon, quartered
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
Step 1: Pour the water in a large stockpot and set aside.
Step 2: Rinse and drain the shrimp shells. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat and toss the shrimp shells for 2 minutes. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes more.
Step 3: Add the shrimp shells and vegetables to the stockpot, then toss in the lemon, bay leaves, thyme, salt, and pepper. Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes. Remove from the heat, then strain the stock through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into quart- or pint-sized containers. Cool the stock completely, then refrigerate for up to 2 weeks or freeze for later use.
Excerpted from Bress ’n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer. Copyright © 2021 CheFarmer Matthew Raiford and Amy Paige Condon. Photography © 2021 by Siobhán Egan. Reproduced by permission of The Countryman Press, a Division of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.